A few weeks ago an Ebony.com article called ‘Dear Beautiful Daughters Who Happen to Be Light‘ popped up in my Facebook timeline. Curious, I clicked on the link. The letter started with “Dear beautiful daughters who happen to be racially ambiguous, ” and it only got worse from there. While I believe the piece was intended to be a tribute to the diverse beauty of black children (and sometimes it was) it read more like an affirmation of light skinned privilege in the black community — and even went so far to say it;
“Use your privilege for good. People will listen to you, so please have something to say. Read, listen, and engage. Repeat. When you realize that other voices are missing, use your granted power to bring them into conversation. Please don’t speak for them. The tellers of hard-to-hear stories need ears, not translators.”
That paragraph stopped me in my tracks.
I couldn’t believe that, in 2013, there are people who still believe that dark skinned women need… advocates!? That women like Michelle Obama, Serena Williams, Ursula Burns, Mara Brock Akil and Oprah need lighter skinned humans to give them voice and “bring them into conversation.”
The article got me thinking about whether it’s even appropriate to include children in the ongoing color debate that seems to define African American culture (and sadly, many black and brown cultures around the world).
I do not ‘match’ my younger sister. I am freckled with brown eyes and skin the color of almonds. She is several shades darker, with deep brown skin and big bright eyes. Our difference in skin tone was never once pointed out by my parents because, frankly, they just did not care. They were both the first in their families to fight their way out of poverty — my father in Haiti and my mother in Detroit. And they did have to fight. They used every ounce of will and intelligence, ever bit of luck and serendipity, to get educated and climb out of systemic poverty. As such, their priority was to teach us kids the importance of education, perseverance and resourcefulness to find our way in the world. Skin color and tone (and looks in general) were never part of that conversation.
Outside of the home my sister and I noticed differences in how we were treated. It didn’t happen often, in large part because I’m 5 years older, so we didn’t really hang in the same social circles. But I remember the time she was followed around a pharmacy in New Kingston by a store clerk, and I was not. Or the times men would yell out “Browning!” to me as we passed on the street, but ignore my sister. But I never translated these incidents as meaningful ‘privilege.’
Fast forward to today and — how do I put this — my sister is far more impressive than I am. She graduated (with high honors) with a degree in Geology and Earth Sciences and was president of her college’s environmental association, the first black woman to hold that position. She studied for a semester at Oxford University, and interned for the Jamaica Department of Forestry. She is currently getting a double masters in Law and Geology, at a university where she also functions, at age 23, as an undergraduate professor. She was recently offered a position at an oil company in Dubai.
As for me? I got a bachelor’s degree in Communication (aka the easiest major in the world), tried my hand at journalism, gave up when it nearly bankrupted me, then moved back in with my parents to start a blog o_0 (Fun fact, to this day my Dad doesn’t quite get what I do. I am definitely the “slacker child” in his book…)
My sister’s charisma isn’t just professional. She dates A LOT more than I did when I was single, and attracts the ethnic rainbow.
When I look at my life compared to hers, it’s hard to articulate how or where the fact that I’m a few shades lighter gave me any noticeable or significant privilege. Our differences in path have to do with who we are as people — she’s an extrovert with a magnetic personality. She’s very focused and driven. I’m an emo introvert who is driven, yes, but also slow-moving, and always feeling some kind of anguish or angst over something.
Now, my sister will be the first to tell you that she deals with bullshit for being a dark skinned black woman. She complains of the lack of dark-skinned beauties in the media, and she sometimes deals with insensitive color jokes from ignorant black folks. But she would never say that being a dark skinned black woman kept her from getting educated, getting the jobs she wanted, or attracting eligible men.
Growing up my mother would always tell us the story of the teacher who called her ‘darkie’ in third grade. She sat beside a fair-skinned girl with long curly hair and it turns out they always had the same answers on tests and class assignments. The teacher questioned both girls, and concluded that my mother was the cheater. “You’re a darkie. You’re so black. You look like you cheat, ” she told my 8-year-old mom. She moved my mother to the back of the class and allowed the fair-skinned girl to stay in front. Turns out my mom continued to score high, while the other girl’s grades dropped. Eventually the teacher moved my mom back to the front of the class — but she never apologized.
This story embodies what I’ve come to believe about colorism and privilege in the black community — it’s ugly, it hurts and it’s a problem. But at the end of the day, intelligence, resourcefulness and character get you where skin color — whether light or dark — simply won’t. (I do acknowledge that this is less true in appearance-oriented industries like entertainment. Lucky for me I don’t give a damn whether my kid becomes the next Disney star.)
I don’t plan on explaining skin color privilege to my son. He’ll see it in culture, I’m sure, and if he wants to talk about it, we will. But I won’t have a hand in giving him a complex that says if he’s lighter than someone he’s entitled to more than they have, and if he’s darker he’s entitled to less. And the constant debate on colorism is frustrating to me because class plays a much more decisive role than race (and, by extension, color) in determining the average American’s quality of life. While we bicker about light skin, dark skin and the brown paper bag, the gap between America’s upper and middle class continues to widen.
When it comes to color I think I’ll take a page from my parent’s playbook and teach my child that, in issues of life and love, it’s what’s in his head and heart that will ultimately get him where he needs to be.
Ladies, what do you think? Will you talk to your children about colorism in the black community? Have you already talked to them about it? How did the discussion go?
Leila Noelliste is the creator and editor of Black Girl with Long Hair and Baby and Blog.